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Poverty, Abuse, Death & Polygamy: Behind 'The Sound of Gravel'
How Ruth Wariner Saved Herself, and Her Siblings, From a Mormon Fundamentalist Colony
Book of the Month, Ruth Wariner
This past month, Book of the Month's editorial team selected a memoir by Ruth Wariner, "The Sound of Gravel," which we described as "an unforgettable and heartbreaking portrait of a family in their most desperate moments." The story followed Ruth, who was her mother's fourth child and her father's thirty-ninth, as a young child struggling to survive in a polygamist colony and facing poverty, abuse, the tragic deaths of her sister, brother, and mother, and caring for her siblings with disabilities. We were so moved by the strength of this young woman, and Ruth?s ability to write about her past with such clarity, that we wanted to speak with the author herself.
Check out the full audio interview here or read the full transcript below:
This is your debut memoir. What prompted you to write this book?
Well my reasons for writing the book have always been very personal, my sisters started asking about our parents and where we had come from when I was in my early 20s and i was raising my sisters - they were 8, 10 and, 12, and they started asking me about what happened to our mom and I hadn't even realized that I hadn't told them because we left LeBaron [the fundamentalist Mormon community where she grew up] when they were so young and so at that point I was still in college and I didn't really have time to start writing the book but i knew that I really wanted to for them, so that they could understand our personal history and why we grew up without parents. So it's for them, it's for my sisters to understand our mother in a way that I did as a child that they weren't able to.
It was obviously an emotional book, it was emotional for me as a reader, how did you feel as you were actually getting this all down on the page?
There were times, especially during the most tragic scenes and the saddest scenes that I definitely had to step away from the page and take a break from writing and sometimes I wouldn't be able to come back to the page for a couple of days. And it was hard but I also ended up having so many memories come up that were good for me to face and let go of, and when I was writing about it, it was definitely cathartic, there was a lot of healing I went through as I was writing. and I was able to leave a lot of that on the page even though it took me a while to get it out, it wasn't the type of thing I could sit down and write about for 8 hours a day, I definitely had to take my breaks because it was so emotional and thinking about my mom and the way she looked, the way she smelled, and the things she used to say and her quirky little jokes and different things like that were hard but they were good for me too because I needed to remember her as an adult. Writing about her really helped me have more compassion for her and her situation and I think that was really helpful. And even though the story was a hard one to tell I think I found a lot of forgiveness for her because it helped me understand her better.
Going into that, this relationship with your mother was one of the most complex and important relationships in this memoir - what are your feelings towards her today, you talked about forgiveness?
There are still times when I don't understand her choice to stay, there are times when I still will dream about her and be frustrated with her, like "why did you stay?" But that doesn't happen very often anymore. I think that as I've grown into womanhood and facing the struggles that maybe a lot of women face and that I believe my mom faced, was just that lack of self love that she had for herself because I inherited part of that because of my childhood and because of the way that Fundamentalist Mormon religion treated women. I believe she didn't learn a lot of self love and didn't have a lot of confidence, and she ended up in a religion and a lifestyle that validated the way she felt about herself - and that's just me, as I didn't get to know her as an adult - but that was me reflecting back on her and then again on my own life and realizing that I had to learn to care for myself and love myself and nurture myself in a way that my mother was never able to and I don't know if that was because of her generation, if that was just the culture or what that was. I've learned to deal with that in myself I really feel like I was learning to forgive my mom at the same time because she believed something that kept her from growing and learning and being out in the world. I also see other women in that situation especially knowing women back then, there were so many women that stayed that had several children, and then especially my mom having three disabled children and in addition to seven other children and the situation that they put themselves in or they find themselves in eventually it's really hard to get out of, so there has been a lot of forgiveness - a lot of forgiveness for my mother and a lot of forgiveness for myself but there's still some residual like, "why did all that happen?", kind of thing and it comes up once in awhile but for the most part... It was also cultural, you know like I said I look at a lot of the women there that stayed in similar situations and it was what the people from colonia LeBaron or the women back then in the 70s and 80s did - they stayed.
Along that concept of learning to love yourself, brings me to one quote at the end of your book when you're talking about meeting your husband and having such a wonderful man - you say:
"It took years of counseling, prayer, meditation, and self-reflection before I felt worthy of a man with such qualities. I had much to discover and nurture in myself first. On this day, I realize that all the work was worth it.?
How did you realize that you could do the work and how did you between all of your responsibilities, how did you kind of come to that realization and do all that work?
For me it started when I started raising my sisters one, because I wanted to be a better person once I became responsible for their lives there was a part of me that naturally wanted a better life for myself and for them. I was working at the time - gosh they were 4, 6, and 8 i think at the time - when I was a secretary in accounts receivable at a wrecking yard, in southern Oregon, in Grants Pass, Oregon and I was on my own at that point with my sisters making $6.75 an hour I mean it was just not a living wage and we were still on welfare, and I just wanted a better life for ourselves and I had spent a lot of time in their classrooms, and really loved being around kids and learning and loved to see how children light up when they discover something new or when they figure something out and so I really wanted to go back to college to be a teacher. I started community college, and when I started community college, I started taking a lot of literature classes, and world religions classes and philosophy of religion and it kind of opened in my mind into so many different ways of thinking and thinking about myself and my life, and I started questioning in a way that i hadn't before - questioning my own life and what I wanted from it and how I wanted to move forward and what kind of lifestyle I wanted - those kinds of questions that I had never been introduced to before in my childhood. So i think for me it really started with my education and a love of learning and a desire to want to do more and to do better with my own life. And I started writing a lot and after I took one of my world religions classes, and i was still at the community college level, but I was just so fascinated at how different religions believed and for me it was always - I always picked up on the similarities in the religions and really, it kind of strengthened my faith in God. Different religions have a different word for it, but that's what it was for me, and to start wondering about my own spirituality and questioning it, and I decided, I wrote research papers on - I made this one choice in a writing class, I decided I wanted to compare Jesus and Buddha's teachings. It was after I had taken the world religions class and I was just so fascinated about how similar their teachings were and the way that they taught, so I thought, I just had this brilliant, I was so excited about this idea that I thought was so original and then I went to our small little library and started to do research on it thinking I would find separate books, explaining that and found probably at least 20 or 30 books just in that tiny library about people who had already written about the same topic - so for me it was this exciting new thing but obviously people had been seeing those similarities for centuries and had already written bout it. So I started to love to learn about those kinds of things and question and at that point I started to learn to love just what i was inspired by and one of them was learning and growing and then once I became a teacher and I was still constantly - I've always been a reflective person and I was still learning about myself because I was still raising my sisters and when I started teaching high school they were teenagers at that point and they actually came to the school where I was teaching and I taught two of my youngest sister.
Once I started teaching, and I had benefits, I had really good benefits, mental health benefits, and i had always wanted to go to counseling but couldn't afford it until then and I was in my late 20s at that point, and it took me a while, but found a good therapist that was honest that had experience with women and children who had had traumatic childhoods similar to mine, and she knew a lot about the fundamentalist Mormon religion, too. So I was able to relate to her at that level as well, and I worked with her for several years and sometimes I still go back to her and it was good for me to be able to talk out things and she was really good at giving me advice about what was going on inside me and just helped me find a deeper level of maturity to myself and she kept telling me I needed to re-parent myself because the way i grew up wasn't normal. I think therapy really helped, you know my family I grew up with them too and my relationships with other people - I learned a lot about myself through that. It's been a process, I'm still learning, I'm still learning and growing.
So can I ask you about your siblings...How do you feel that your younger sisters, that you had to raise them? Do you wish that they had had your upbringing and grew up in LeBaron or how do you feel about how everything happened?
I am glad that my sisters didn't grow up in LeBaron, I wish that we had had normal parents. Quote, unquote "normal parents." I mean I guess everybody's got their family histories, every family's got their secrets and their dysfunction but I think we missed out on not having parents. I think that's been hard on all of us i know it has been on me- but to go back to that culture where, at least back then when I was there, women weren't respected at all, children didn't really have a voice, they were - nobody ever said it - but they were meant to be seen and not heard. I grew up with so much of my childhood not having a voice and not having a say in my own life and I just thought that was normal at the time so would I have wanted my sisters to grow up in that culture - probably not - they're pretty independent, strong women, really smart they do well in their lives and so I guess there are some things that I wish we had but not in colonia LeBaron. I don't think I would go back there.
One of your quotes:
"The memory of those days reminds me of how exhausted I had been, but my siblings gave my life purpose, they were the bridge from pain to healing, from past to future. They are as much the authors of my survival as I am of theirs."
You're talking about raising them at a very young age, how did you even have the strength to support them while you were getting your education, and how did you even - I guess you were raising children from a very young age even when your mother was there - but how did you step into that role?
I stepped into that role I felt like at the time pretty naturally. We lived with my grandmother for 4 years and she helped me, I got my GED while I was living with her and I took home study classes to help with my sisters and as she got progressively older and she had advanced diabetes and some other heart problems and stuff and as she got sicker, and wasn't able to have us live with her anymore, I really felt like I wanted, like it was the natural thing for my sisters and I to stay together. So for me, it just felt natural and when I made that choice I was 19 when I moved out on my own with them and I didn't know what I, like most parents, especially single parents, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I was working and part of the way we supported ourselves for me was on student loans, part-time jobs, and on welfare so we were still collecting food stamps really for a while - really until I graduated, finished with graduate school and started teaching. As I was raising them there were definitely times where it's like am I doing the right thing here, is it the best thing for people to do when they don't have parents to raise their siblings? Do we all have to stay together? So I doubted myself and I questioned myself quite a bit but for me it always came back to - yes this is worth it I want my family to be with me and I want them to be OK. So just the relationships with them and wanting to be with them. My younger brother Aaron stayed with us and lived with us for a few years too, for me, that was what was familiar, it's what i knew - I think had I lost them as well, I don't think I would have been as emotionally stable. I don't know if that makes sense but they did bring stability to my life, in spite of how hard it is to be a single parent. So for me it was it was definitely worth it - and was it challenging? Absolutely. I was learning about myself, I was growing up basically at the same time I was raising them and sometimes I think about it and I think that maybe I would like to have them as little girls now, because they were just so adorable and to be able to raise them from a more mature place, and a more grown up place, and you know a place where we're not as poor. I would have been able to provide for them better had I been older but that's what the situation was and for what it was, I'm grateful for what we were able to do in spite of how hard it was.
You were very lucky to have them. So talking about if you had had them today - can you talk to us about your life today, your career, your marriage, your religious beliefs?
I live in Portland, Oregon, I've been married to my husband Allen, it's my first marriage, and we've been married for six and a half years now and I quit teaching - I taught high school Spanish for 8 years - and I quit teaching to start writing the book and I helped my husband's business a little bit, he owns his own consulting business for city and regional magazines. I help him a little with that but for the most part for now I'm working full-time on my writing and the promotion of the book. It's been challenging but it's been a lot of fun and I'm learning a lot so that's always been my thing - I've always loved to be challenged and to keep learning so it's been good in that regard. I have two little sisters that live here locally - my youngest sisters, Leah and Holly, rent a house together in Southeast Portland and I just had dinner with them last night. We talk on the phone - they actually, my three little sisters talk to each other on the phone all the time, but I'm glad if they do and if I am ever concerned about one or the other I'll ask Holly about how Leah is doing and she'll tell me all about it because they talk to each other constantly. The oldest of the three, Elena, lives in Seattle and she works at Boeing. She's got a beautiful little apartment there and we just spent Christmas with her in her new apartment with a panoramic view of the Space Needle and the Sound, and so that was really fun. My brother Aaron also lives in Seattle, he's a mechanical engineer there, and he's doing really well too. We spend the holidays together all the time. I see them, my family in Seattle, every few months, and then my brother Luke lives in Southern Oregon and my Aunt and Uncle help take care of him there. He's my special needs brother and he plays Special Olympics - he plays sports about 3 times a year - and plays a variety of sports and works at a nursery, called Greenleaf in Grants Pass Oregon. He's doing really well and my oldest brother Matt is still involved with the church - the fundamentalist Church that my father started. He's tried to live with me a couple different times, it's not quite working out, it doesn't seem to be fitting into his - you know the modern life - my mother's generation was much more into the religion I think than my generation and my brother's generation so it's becoming harder and harder for that culture to continue on just because of the cost of living and for practical reasons I think more than anything else. But he's doing well, he has 14 children and his youngest wife will probably keep having children for a while. We see him a couple of times a year. Religiously, I don't belong to the fundamentalist Mormon or the LDS Mormon Church. It's just not a religion that inspired me and I do believe in God, I start everyday out with journaling and my prayers and my quiet time to help center me and get me focused on what's more positive in life and i need that for myself everyday. To me, religion - I have trouble with organized religion - but really for me it's important but it's also very personal, it's not something that I need to convince anybody of or to say that I'm right and you're wrong. It's just more of a healing part of my own life, a spirituality that I practice, that helps keep me centered and sane I guess in our crazy world. I believe in god but I don't believe he belongs to any one particular religion - that that spirit of creation belongs to any one group of people.
I'm so glad everyone is doing well.
We feel very lucky and feel very blessed and I think that keeping us together really helped us stay stable and helped us grow up with some healthy relationships and perspectives.
I want to ask you a little bit more generally about your favorite books and favorite authors and are there any favorite books from childhood that stand out to you?
There was one book in my childhood that I loved and it was actually based on the bible and I had heard a lot of bible stories back then, I think I was 6 or 7 years old, and there's a little bit of a scene of it in my book in "The Sound of Gravel". The reason I think I loved the book so much was because my grandfather read it to me and it was called 'Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors' and it was an Old Testament story that I fell in love with I think because there was the sibling connection, even though it was a painful story about siblings betraying each other, but I loved the way my grandfather read to me and I think he really - the special attention that i got from him, my mother's father - was something that helped me enjoy and love reading so much. My favorite, I love historical fiction and probably my favorite historical fiction book was "Memoirs of a Geisha," it's an older book now but I love the characters and the description and the times that it was set in WWII it was just so fascinating to me because I feel like I really was transported to another culture that I'd never been to and learned from that story. I was so surprised and so impressed that it was written in a female voice by a man and I thought that was extremely smart and thought the writer was so talented. I love a lot of spiritual readings and one of my favorite books of all times I think was Eckhart Tolle's 'A New Earth' - I loved that book. I owned it three or four times and kept loaning it out and had to buy it again and every time I read it, I kept underlining and highlighting my favorite parts over and over again that I actually still go back to and read because I feel like they're so inspirational and really feed my soul. I love Eckhart Tolle, I follow him quite a bit and I also love Iyanla Vanzant, she wrote a book, I think it was 'Yesterday I Cried' and that was partly her memoir and it was also a spiritual and sort of a self-help book, at least that's how I took it, and I loved hearing about her life because she told it in such a way that was very direct and honest but also in a way that helped me heal because I was able to believe in a God that was loving and accepting and forgiving rather than having this God that was going to come down and punish me for every cup of coffee or glass of wine that I drank. Her life story helped heal me and so I've been following her for a while too. More recently, gosh I bet everybody's probably read this book, another historical fiction set during WWII was 'All the Light We Cannot See' and Anthony Doerr...And i just loved the book. I listen to a lot of audiobooks so I listened to that book on tape and was totally transported into a different life, in a different world, and I have a lot of prayer books I read from people like Marianne Williamson, Tosha Silver, people like that. I belong to two book clubs so I can't even remember all the books I've read but those are the ones that stand out to me.
How do you feel about your book being featured in BOTM?
It's so exciting I was reading some of the reviews of the other books and I feel completely honored and flattered and just completely blown away that it was chosen. It's hard to be a new author, I'm learning. It's hard and it's wonderful and it's exciting, but it's so nice to have this kind of support early on it really feels like every author should be this lucky. I really feel very very fortunate to be included, and I was reading too about the Judges and it's pretty prestigious. I know who all these people are - all these editors from magazines and newspapers and movie stars - it's a pretty incredible group of people and writers to be included with i feel very very fortunate.
We're very excited to be featuring you, it's a powerful memoir and story so thank you for sharing it. One thing I didn't ask, what's the one thing you'd like your readers to get from "The Sound of Gravel"?
I think for me, for readers it would be most important...for them to be able to reflect on their own lives and to find the gratitude in themselves and to hopefully resonate with that part of me that was strong and resilient and in spite of my situation, to realize that we all have that in us and in spite of how difficult circumstances can become, we don't have to be a victim of it, that we can rise above it, not that it's easy because I don't want to make it seem like it's easy to do that, but that we can, that we have the power to do that. I think that one thing that people have - what I've gotten, responses from early readers is that by me telling my story, in a very vulnerable way, it opens the door for my readers to share their stories in vulnerable ways and I think that can be very important and healing. I tell them just a little bit about the story just when I'm talking about the book and they open up like "ohh this happened to my mom and I heard that story so many times and I had to do this when I was 15," and you know so I think it opens the door for that which ultimately opens the door for healing, so even if it's just a small spark of healing I think that would be pretty amazing.
Do you have plans to write more books?
I would love to - I've thought about things I've started writing scenes and it kind of all depends on how the next couple of years play out - I hope to be able to, yes.